Attention, seniors: It's never too late to start exercising!

Studies have shown that starting a regular exercise program can greatly benefit the health and quality of life of seniors of all ages and fitness levels. Many older adults, however, are either afraid to start exercising or are unsure how to begin. To get the most out of a fitness program, seniors need to incorporate four types of exercises, according the authors of Fitness Over Fifty: An Exercise Guide From the National Institute on Aging (Hatherleigh Press, $15.95).

1. Endurance exercises increase breathing and heart rate. They improve the health of the heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Having more endurance not only keeps seniors healthier, it can also improve stamina for the tasks they need to live and do things on their own—climbing stairs and grocery shopping, for example. Endurance exercises also may delay or prevent many diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, stroke, and others, and reduce overall death and hospitalization rates. Example: Walking briskly.

2. Strength exercises build muscles, but they do more than make seniors stronger. They give them more strength to do things on their own. Even very small increases in muscle can make big differences in ability, especially in frail people. Strength exercises also increase metabolism, helping to keep weight and blood sugar in check. That’s important because obesity and diabetes are major health problems for older adults. Studies suggest that strength exercises also may help prevent osteoporosis. Example: Biceps curls.

3. Balance exercises help prevent a common problem in older adults: falls. Falling is a major cause of broken hips and other injuries that often lead to disability and loss of independence. Some balance exercises build up the leg muscles; others require you to do simple exercises, many of which can be done anywhere. Example: Briefly standing on one leg, then the other, while waiting in line at the grocery store.

4. Flexibility exercises help keep the body limber by stretching muscles and the tissues that hold the body’s structures in place. Physical therapists and other health professionals recommend certain stretching exercises to help patients recover from injuries and to prevent injuries from happening in the first place. Flexibility also may play a part in preventing falls. Example: Place hands together in a praying position. Slowly raise elbows until arms are parallel to the ground. This stretches your wrist muscles.

Fitness Over Fifty is the guide to exercise for men and women older than 50 from the National Institute on Aging. There’s no need to join a gym or buy expensive equipment. Everything needed to begin an exercise program is right inside this book, and it’s available in bookstores everywhere.

From the nov. 2-8, 2005, issue

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